I got a sneak preview of the new Seattle headquarters of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Wednesday evening, courtesy of Bill Foege, one of several Bills there.
Foege’s title at the Gates Foundation is “senior fellow.” But that doesn’t really tell you much, except to imply he’s old. It certainly doesn’t tell you how tall he is. He’s a very tall senior fellow.
I don’t think I was supposed to be at this gathering. Bill Gates didn’t seem to want to talk to me. And everybody kept asking me what I was doing there, since the event at the new campus was supposed to be a reception for staff and their guests. So how’d I get past security?
Well, in addition to being a journalist, I think I can say Bill Foege and I have become friends. I’m not sure that’s good for his otherwise stellar reputation. But that’s his problem.
My problem is that I have to admit to being pretty biased when it comes to Foege. We certainly don’t always see things the same way. But he’s definitely one of my heroes, not only for his amazing accomplishments in global health (like devising the strategy that led to the eradication of smallpox) as for how he achieves them. Put simply, Foege inspires people.
More importantly than what I think, Foege appears to have been one of the key inspirations for Bill and Melinda Gates’ philanthropic mission.
That’s basically what Melinda Gates said yesterday to the philanthropy’s staff after introducing those attending to their new (soon, June) home with its light-filled, open design and the architecturally expressed desire that the building itself will send a message of Seattle reaching out to the world.
From there, she moved on to the Two Bills. The two tall Bills of the Gates Foundation.
“There are two people in this foundation we’re going to recognize tonight,” she said. The first was Foege, who she credited with helping to guide the philanthropy in crafting and sustaining its focus on global health.
“He has helped us think deeply about the problems of the poor and also encouraged us to be bold about what we do,” Melinda said.
The other guiding light — and tall Bill — of the foundation to be recognized last night was of course Bill Gates, Sr. Melinda noted that Bill Sr. (as he is known, pretty much anywhere in Seattle) was the guiding vision at the very beginning and has probably put more time into the foundation than any other single person.
“Bill Sr. has represented the family foundation with constancy and wisdom,” Melinda said. When she, “Trey” (the shorter Bill Gates, the one that started Microsoft) can sometimes get all “wound up” discussing issues, potential projects or solving problems, she said Bill Sr. is there to keep things focused on the primary mission.
“Bill Sr. will often stop us and say, look, what are we really trying to do here?” Melinda said.
To honor the Two Tall Bills of the Gates Foundation, they planted two trees in the eastern courtyard. Below is the Gates family, and a somewhat serious-looking Foege, gathered around the Foege tree.
You will note that Melinda is holding a copy of Foege’s new book about the story of the smallpox eradication campaign, House on Fire. I’ve read it. If you want to understand how one of the greatest accomplishments in global health was achieved, you should read it, too.
We’ll be talking more about that story (and why it matters now) with Bill Foege in the near future. Stay tuned.